Words are not tools, but we give children language, pens, and notebooks as we give workers shovels and pickaxes.
—Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (76)
If you’re like me, then chances are you’ve opened up or otherwise accessed this issue of Text and Performance Quarterly to stay on top of the latest developments in Performance Studies. That’s a sensible thing to do. Academic communities depend significantly on our willingness to share our latest research with our colleagues and to share in theirs in return. Journals are particularly well suited to this type of exchange, maybe even better than books. Because of the frequency with which periodicals are published and the specialized audiences they usually address, they’re able to offer more regular opportunities for fields or disciplines to reaffirm or challenge their discursive bonds. The question I want to pose is, should we expect even more from this type of exchange than we currently do?
The foregoing activities and a host of other ones fall under the rubric of “scholarly communication.” In its conventional usage, the term refers to both process and product, drawing on the two dominant senses of the word “communication” James Carey identified more than 35 years ago: the ritual (e.g., the periodic avowal of disciplinary solidarity) and the transmissive (e.g., the instrumental dissemination of research) (12). The claim I want to advance is that our expectations of academic publishing are linked to how we conceive of the “communication” part of “scholarly communication,”[fn]…and indeed to the “scholarly” part of “scholarly communication,” but that’s a different essay entirely.[/fn] and that the conventional usage hardly accounts for the range of phenomena with which periodical publishing in particular can be associated. I might even be tempted to say, paraphrasing Deleuze and Guattari, that words are not tools, but we give journals to academics as we give construction workers shovels and pickaxes.
Serials, indeed, are more than just obligatory tools of the academic trade. This becomes apparent as soon as we emphasize the performative dimensions of scholarly communication. By this I refer to the material transformations that result from a given communicative event and, relatedly, to the socially-inculcated habits that dispose us to engage repetitively—though too often unreflectively—in culturally charged activities (How to Do 6; Butler, Gender passim; Butler, Bodies 12-16; “Performing Writing”).[fn]Note that I am parsing the ritual, transmissive, and performative aspects of communication for analytical purposes only, recognizing that there is significant overlap between and among them.[/fn] I’ve addressed the first part of this definition elsewhere and at length, looking specifically at the political and economic consequences that result from our participation in a scholarly book and journal publishing industry that in recent years has come under increasing corporate control (Striphas, “Banality”; Striphas, “Acknowledged”). In what remains of this brief essay I want to home in mainly on the second part of the definition. Specifically, I want to explore the conditions under which some of our current journal publishing practices, or performances, first arose and to reflect on their pertinence today. Then, drawing on one unconventional publishing experiment I’ve initiated, I’ll offer a few ideas about how we might perform scholarly communication differently—that is, without simply giving in, in Judith Butler’s words, to “the compulsion to repeat” (Gender 145).[fn]The full quotation is: “All signification takes place within the orbit of the compulsion to repeat.”[/fn]
The emergence of a routine set of practices that would today be called “scholarly communication” is a fascinating, if understudied, aspect of intellectual history. Despite the obvious topical overlap, communication scholars haven’t much chronicled, let alone theorized, the development of these activities other than informally. (This is, I suspect, indicative of the degree to which the humanities generally, and the discipline of communication more specifically, have taken these activities for granted.) The responsibility has instead fallen mainly to historians of science and sociologists, who’ve nonetheless painted a fascinating picture of how scientific exchange began to coalesce in the early modern period. What intrigues me about this history is not so much the invention of modern science as the improvisations by which a burgeoning group of journal editors and contributors came to devise their communicative protocols.
Of the many works exploring the history of academic journal publishing, among the most compelling is Harriet Zuckerman and Robert K. Merton’s essay from 1971, “Patterns of Evaluation in Science: Institutionalization, Structure, and Functions of the Referee System.” The authors focus on the “social invention of the scientific journal,” or the diffuse ensemble of negotiations through which, starting in the late 17th century, scientific communications achieved a high degree of formalization (68). Their account begins with the fundamental notion of making public one’s research. Doing so was hardly self-evident to early modern scientists and their predecessors, let alone the acknowledged good that it is today. Quite the contrary, they tended to shroud their experiments and discoveries in secrecy (69). This was a compensatory move, intended to offset the prevailing lack of regard for the sanctity of another’s words and ideas. It was also something of a carry-over from the guild system, which enforced strict norms of trade secrecy as a matter of civic, regional, or national pride (“Guilds”).[fn]Guilds, Belfanti notes, often worked to impede innovation through their enforcement of secrecy and tradition.[/fn] An indeterminate amount of sharing did occur, of course, but it often transpired in isolation, and generally then in the form of private letters directed to one’s closest confidants. Zuckerman and Merton label this correspondence “fugitive” because of the highly dispersed scientific record that resulted from it (71). Indeed, with cutting-edge research tucked away in the odd corner of one’s desk drawer or perhaps stowed haphazardly in someone else’s personal library, it’s little wonder that many early academicians felt the need to be wandering scholars (c.f.: Printing Press 72, 579).
All that changed in due course, so much so that the figure of the wandering scholar was gradually displaced by that of another: the researcher “standing on the shoulders of giants,” in Isaac Newton’s words, or building deliberately on earlier and more readily accessible work (qtd. in Surowiecki 164).[fn]Surowiecki conjectures that Newton may have intended the phrase to be “a cruel joke” directed toward his diminutive rival, Robert Hooke.[/fn]
The shift from an ostensibly closed scientific paradigm to a considerably more open one occurred to some extent by design. Yet, as Zuckerman and Merton observe, more often than not it occurred extemporaneously. Peer-review, publication dates, even the formal academic paper—these and other routine features of scholarly communication began their days as “adaptive expedients” meant to address particular problems relating to the nascent system of journal publishing (69). Dates, for example, arose as a means for certifying “priority of discovery” and thus as an incentive for scientists to begin sharing their work publicly. The carefully-crafted research paper appears to have emerged even more organically, a result of peer and editorial pressure, both real and perceived: “Communications intended for publication would ordinarily be more carefully prepared than private scientific papers,” write Zuckerman and Merton, “and all the more so, presumably, in the knowledge that they would be scrutinized” by authorities within the growing scientific community (73).
All that to say, the norms of scholarly communication that we perform today were forged under historically specific circumstances. This of course begs the question of the extent to which those circumstances continue to apply today—a question that I cannot hope to answer here. Instead I’ll address it indirectly, by commenting briefly on how peer review has transformed over time.
Peer review serves the purpose of quality control, no doubt, yet it performs other, less obvious, functions as well. It is way of constantly enacting the principle: there is a finite amount of pages in any given volume of any given journal, and so only the most worthy research ought to have the privilege of filling them. In other words, peer review is a speech act whose outcome is rarity, or scarcity. The practice arose partly as a means of compensating for the material realities of the medium of print, which places determinate limits on how much content can find its way into the public realm (“Obsolescence” 721).[fn]Specifically, Fitzpatrick discusses “the scarce economics of print.”[/fn] But it hasn’t always been so—at least, not exactly. In the early days of scientific periodicals, it wasn’t uncommon for those in charge to come up short on papers deemed “publishable” when it came time to send an issue to press. They devised two main strategies to work around the problem: wait to publish until sufficient—and sufficiently suitable—matter presented itself; or fill the remaining space with work that hadn’t been properly vetted. The latter, Zuckerman and Merton note, would appear absent the endorsement of the scholarly society under whose imprimatur a given journal was published. Here a different standard prevailed: “sit penes authorem fides,” or “let the author take responsibility for it” (68-69, 73). On those occasions when the quantity of pages ceased to be an overarching concern, that is to say, early journal editors recognized that they need not maintain the performance scarcity as a matter of course.
We have significantly lost touch with this adaptability today. This is attributable in part to the exponential growth of scholarly research over the last 300 years or so, which has helped to make publishing in academic journals an increasingly competitive affair. Yet it’s also attributable to the compulsion to engage in scholarly communication as if the material constraints of print still straightforwardly applied (assuming they ever did). For example, the editors of the journal Shakespeare Quarterly recently conducted an “open peer review” experiment, in which contributors to a special issue on the Bard and new media were asked to post drafts of their papers online. Anyone visiting the site was welcome to comment on the work. The authors, for their part, were encouraged to revise their papers based on the wisdom of the “crowd” whose feedback, the editors hoped, would surpass that of the usual two or three editorial board members responsible for evaluating the work. Here’s the rub, though: beyond the fact that the editors still ultimately determined which essays would be published, the majority of those providing commentary were “very established, senior scholars” whose presence reportedly silenced some their junior colleagues (“Humanities Journal” A11). What, then, was actually different here, beyond the fact that even more than the normal number of superstars got to hold sway over the direction of their field? Indeed it seems to me that, if anything, this was a heightened performance of scarcity in spite of the preponderance of digital space.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that we simply dispense with peer review, editorial decision-making, or the like. Instead, let’s try to think much more creatively—even expansively—than we currently do about how these and other fixtures of scholarly communication might work. Our early modern predecessors knew enough to recognize the difference between “there we go again” (a performance of expedient adaptation) and “this is how these things are done” (a performance of compulsory routine), and in this regard we’d do well to abide by their example (Social Construction 57, 59).
For my part, I’ve been tinkering with the norms of scholarly communication off and on since at least 2007. Early that year I’d committed to writing a paper for the National Communication Association’s annual convention in Chicago, explicating this enigmatic statement from Deleuze and Guattari: “We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present” (Philosophy 108). I pecked away at the essay that fall and managed produce a presentable draft about a week before NCA. Yet, the piece still felt unfinished to me—as if there was more that I wanted to say, but couldn’t. I considered posting the draft to my blog, Differences & Repetitions (http://www.diffandrep.org), with the hope that my readers would provide some feedback.[fn]The site was hosted at http://striphas.blogspot.com until July 2010, whereupon I moved it to its current address. The original Differences and Repetitions remains online, albeit now as a legacy site[/fn] It was then that I accepted the fact that I’d about reached the limit of my knowledge, and so I decided to take the project in a different direction. I posted the essay to a wiki site and invited anyone interested enough work on it. Thus was born the Differences & Repetitions Wiki: A Site for Open Source Writing (http://www.diffandrep.org/wiki), or D&RW, and its first-ever fully editable project, “We Do Not Lack Communication.”[fn]The site was hosted at http://striphas.wikidot.com until July 2010, whereupon I moved it to its current address. The original Differences and Repetitions Wiki remains online, albeit now as a legacy site. The version of the essay that I presented at NCA in 2007 was exclusively my own.[/fn] I built the site, incidentally, using free open source software.
I cannot honestly say the experiment has been a resounding success—at least, not yet, since it remains ongoing. On the plus side, the project site has received hundreds of page views since it went live in late 2007. Fewer contributors than I’d hoped have added prose, citations, and comments, although I’m encouraged that after four years additions and changes continue to occur (albeit sporadically). Perhaps the most promising outcome is that the contributors have nudged the project in directions I never would have thought to take it, thereby encouraging me to reflect on my own disciplinary predilections. More unsettling has been the gradual absorption of my writing into that of others, which has challenged me to let go of my sense of propriety over the work. Indeed, at one point I had designs on publishing the piece in a conventional academic journal. Now, out of respect for my fellow contributors, I only feel comfortable publishing about it. The essay ceased belonging only to me once it became open source.
In any case, “We Do Not Lack Communication” has taught me a great deal about the types of questions we might ask about our performances of scholarly communication in general, and of academic journal publishing in particular. Could the concept of peer review be expanded to encompass distributed forms of collaboration? Should colleges and universities reward this type of participation, and if so, how? What if people other than out “peers” could easily and routinely add input to our work?[fn]On the organizational dynamics and drawbacks of “groupthink,” particularly in more or less homogeneous communities, see Wisdom 23-39 and 173-191. Surowiecki stresses “cognitive diversity” as an antidote to groupthink.[/fn] What exactly is a “peer,” anyway? How might editors and scholarly societies better curate academic research so as to encourage more broad-ranging engagement with it? Must published research only include monuments to the past, or can it include work of a more plastic nature?[fn]Among those leading the effort to address these and other questions about the future of scholarly communication are Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Gary Hall. See Fitzpatrick (2006; 2008; n.d.); and Hall (2008).[/fn]
I’m not proposing D&RW as a model for the future of scholarly communication as much as a thing to think with. There are many kinks that would need to be worked out before the site could even approach being a viable platform for regular scholarly exchange—and besides, a more “papercentric” type of journal publishing still has plenty of virtues (Digitize 20, 59-61). The point of performing scholarly communication differently shouldn’t be simply to replace a one-size-fits-all approach with yet another one, or to use new technology for the sake of using new technology. The point, rather, should be to expand our repertoire in ways that would enhance the quality of our research and our ability to share it—and by “share it” I mean not only among the constituencies we already know, but as important, among those we might not otherwise encounter.
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This is a preprint of an article published in the January 2012 issue of Text and Performance Quarterly. © 2010-2011 Ted Striphas; Text & Performance Quarterly is available online at: http://www.informaworld.com.